Young girls from poor neighborhoods with conduct issues are more likely to initiate sex at a young age, according to a new study by researchers from the Université de Montréal, the University of New Brunswick and Tufts University, published in the journal Child Development. The study found that troubled girls living in poor neighborhoods were more likely to engage in sexual intercourse in early adolescence and also to be doing so with older boys.

These teen girls from poor neighborhoods with a history of conduct problems were more likely to associate with deviant peers and to be initiated into sex by males that were three years older or more. "Girls with a history of conduct problems were found to be more likely to have deviant and older male friends when they lived in a disadvantaged context," said lead author Véronique Dupéré, who completed the research at the Université de Montréal. "Deviant peers are thought to provide a pool of willing partners and cultivate a sense that early sexual activity is desirable."

At-risk girls vulnerable; boys unaffected

For this study, conduct problems were self-reported in late childhood or when participants were 10 or 11 years old. At-risk behaviors included physical aggression (e.g. bullying, fighting, kicking), destructive tendencies (e.g. vandalism, stealing) and violation of rules (e.g. running away, staying out all night). Subjects were considered to have conduct problems if they had engaged in three at-risk behaviors over one year. Of the sample, 13 percent were considered to have conduct problems.

Living in a disadvantaged neighborhood – among boys – was not directly associated with the timing of sexual initiation. "Contrary to girls for whom peers were of primary importance, family and individual risk appeared more influential in boys' timing their first sexual experience," said Dupéré.

Wide sample of teens

For this study, the research team used a sub-sample of boys and girls from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth. A total of 2,596 Canadian adolescents were followed from the ages of 12 to 15 and one quarter of these participants were found to live in poor neighborhoods. In addition to neighborhood and peer characteristics, family characteristics were also considered, including socio-economic background and family structure.

The large majority of study participants were white. "Among this group, peer characteristics were found to represent a crucial factor for explaining why at-risk girls living in disadvantaged neighborhoods are more likely to initiate sex early," said Éric Lacourse, senior author of the study and a Université de Montréal sociology professor. "During adolescence, peers exert significant influences on different aspects of adolescent behavior and our study results show that sexuality is no exception."

Identifying when and why young girls become sexually active, said Dupéré, is important in a public health perspective. "Other studies show that early initiators are more likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases, undergo unwanted teen pregnancy and to report involuntary sexual experiences," she said.

Added Dupéré, "The results suggest that neighborhoods shape peer groups, which in turn influence when girls become sexually active."

Article: "Neighborhood Poverty and Early Transition to Sexual Activity in Young Adolescents: A Developmental Ecological Approach," published in the journal Child Development, by Véronique Dupéré, Eric Lacourse and Richard E. Tremblay of the Research unit on children's psychosocial maladjustment at the Université de Montréal, J. Douglas Willms of the University of New Brunswick and Tama Leventhal of Tufts University.

Véronique Dupéré, first author of this study, was supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) scholarship.